FR EN ES PT

To satisfy their passion for science and experience the thrill of discovery, some researchers are prepared to go a long way. As far as it takes. Perhaps even… too far? Libet, an Eniripsa researcher and herbalist, recently made her way to the deepest, darkest heart of the Evil Forest. What she discovered there would literally change the course of her career, and even her entire life…


Crouching down near a cluster of mush mushes, Libet carefully collected a thick hunk of moss and immediately sealed it away in a jar. The sample jar joined the dozen others like it that were already attached to the belt around her waist, their bulk a striking contrast to her frail silhouette. She pushed her trifocals a bit higher on her nose, then gave a brief sigh.

That was enough for now. It had been a long day, and she preferred to wait for another time to venture deeper into the Evil Forest. Behind her, her trusty steed, a water seemyool, impatiently blew bubbles and slapped its fins.

"All right, all right… I'm coming. You're so impatient, Lopochon! Can't you see mommy's working?"

Libet tenderly patted her mount's shiny scales and was about to hop on its back when a sharp pain shot through the sole of her right foot. The young Eniripsa gave a start, stumbled into a tangle of vines, and ended up falling with all her weight right on top of her glasses.

She had just stepped on what looked for all the world like a chestnut burr.

"Skribidibidi bi skrawk! Skrunyunyuk skwik!"

Under its spiky shell, a tiny, bright-eyed creature with a forked twig in its hand glared angrily at her. Libet squinted at it to get a better look, and carefully bent down to its level.

"I… I'm sorry. I hope I didn't hurt you!"

The creature suddenly leapt into the palm of Libet's hand.

"Oh! A malterego… I've never seen one of you before!" the Eniripsa smiled.

The little critter raised an eyebrow and gave her what seemed like a friendly look, even batting its eyelashes charmingly at the young Twelvian. Libet reached out to pet it, but it ran off through the foliage that marked the edge of the forest.

"Wait here, Lopochon. I'll be right back."

The seemyool blew a huge bubble in protest as its owner crossed the edge of the forest to plunge into the woods after her new friend.

"I guess the day's not quite over yet…" she said to herself, slipping what was left of her glasses into her pocket.

Unwelcome

Libet moved along slowly. To be honest, she couldn't see too well here… Just a few paces in from the edge of the forest, she came to a bush with a strange melody coming from behind it. She pushed the branches aside.

"Lalalaaa laaa – lilili- skritch skritch skritch! Lalalaaa laaa – lilili - - skritch skritch SHPREEK!"

A surprising spectacle was unfolding as she watched. A dozen tiny creatures like the one that had just met the bottom of her shoe were holding hands and dancing happily in a circle. They were singing a cheerful and childlike tune as they gleefully skipped and hopped to the rhythm.

Libet's eyes widened. She'd never seen anything like this. Caught off guard by the bizarre scene, she let out a nervous giggle.

"Incredible… They're so cute!"

As she reached for her sketchbook, the creatures suddenly stopped their dance and turned to face her in a single coordinated movement.

"Skribidi bidi skrunch skrunch!" one of them squawked to the others. Then they all disappeared yet again through the dense undergrowth.

"Oh! Hey… Hey, wait! I'm not going to hurt you!"

There was no way Libet could let this new research opportunity pass her by. She might never have another chance to study malteregos. She had to catch up to them, whatever it took.

The chase led her to a small sunlit clearing. Her progress was slowed by the dense vegetation and piles of leaves that covered the ground. After picking her way through the bushes for a few minutes, taking care not to trip on the piles of small bones that looked like chafer remains littering the ground, Libet stopped to look around. She realized that the idyllic setting had given way to much darker surroundings, and it took her eyes a long moment to adjust to the dim light here.

Libet had to acknowledge the obvious truth: she had lost track of her new find. Directly in front of her stood a towering elm tree. She walked around the tree, inspected each of its branches and the cracks and holes worn in its trunk over time. Then she turned around with a resigned sigh. Damn! Not a trace of the malteregos. But just then, a faint rustling caught her attention.

Elm Clearing

Libet listened intently and squinted into the darkness. Near a small thicket in front of her, a few thin branches were waving gently despite the lack of wind. She began quietly tiptoeing toward them when a new silhouette, larger than the other creatures, surreptitiously arrived

.

"Skribidibi prootch!"

"I… I don't understand. Do you speak Twelvian?"

"Skibidibidipapalopo!"

"Me not understand you… Me… Me want be your friend. You… malterego?"

The creature's wicked smile caught her off guard. This malterego didn't seem nearly as friendly as the descriptions she'd heard from her colleagues, but she decided to chalk that up to fear. Some sort of defense mechanism, most likely. The little critter surely saw Libet as a threat. The Eniripsa crouched down to its level and gently held out her hand. But it was no use – this malterego was just as unwilling to trust her as the others. It scampered away up the elm tree and disappeared into its upper branches.

The Eniripsa peered up into the tree. A glowing pair of eyes stared back at her from the dense foliage above. Then another… and another! She realized that a good dozen or so of the creatures had sought refuge in the treetop and were looking down at her with their unblinking eyes. Just at that moment, a cloud darkened the sky, turning their shining pupils into a magical garland of light overhead.

"Whoa… It's beautiful!"

Libet felt like a little kid. Her eyes were filled with wonder, shining as brightly as those of the creatures looking down at her. She was desperate to join them in the branches to learn more about them. To immerse herself in their world and return to her own with new knowledge to share. But the thirst for discovery that defined her entire being would not be quenched today. Her visceral fear of heights made that an impossibility.  Her adventure would have to end here.

As a last resort, Libet tried to attract the little critters' attention by any means she could think of – first by offering them some nuts and berries, then by trying to coax them down. All to no avail.

"Strange… I could have sworn they were supposed to be able to communicate with Twelvians…" thought the young woman.

She was about to reluctantly head back when a familiar refrain caught her attention.

"Lalalaaa laaa – lilili- skritch skritch skritch! Lalalaaa laaa – lilili - - skritch skritch PWEEK!"

The voices were coming from behind a stand of trees a little way to the north. Libet forced her way through a dense thicket, scraping her bare arms and legs as she pushed through the wall of thorns. But with the adrenaline rush from the excitement of a new discovery so close at hand, she didn't feel a thing. Once she'd extricated herself from the brambles, she stumbled out into a shadier spot with a vast mound of rocks, earth and roots at its center.

Barrow Summit

A narrow stone staircase led up to a church in miserable condition. Rays of golden late-Martalo sunlight illuminated the building, which despite its dilapidated appearance seemed to have a warm, almost welcoming aura to it. There was something captivating about this place.

A loud creak startled Libet from her reverie. The wooden door of the church, adorned with an emblem in the likeness of the dragon Terrakourial, swung slowly open, releasing a flood of little round creatures with brambles on their heads, all humming the same tune she'd heard before. They advanced toward her, row after row, in an almost military formation.

"Lalalaaa laaa – lilili- skritch skritch skritch! Lalalaaa laaa – lilili - - skritch skritch PWEEK!"

This time, Libet had time to immortalize them in her sketchbook.

"Wait 'til Mattew hears about this…" she whispered to herself with a satisfied smile.

Her friend and colleague was as passionate as she was about the many mysteries of Twelvian plant life. She could already see herself telling him about her encounter with the malteregos, her immersion in their world, and their conversations, because she somehow knew for certain that she could overcome the language barrier. And she swore she wouldn't leave here until she'd done it!

When Libet saw the creatures lining up on either side of the the church door and linking their brambles to form a guard of honor, her elation grew even stronger. She slowly climbed the steps to the top of the mound and walked up the path leading to the building.

 

"They're welcoming me," whispered the young Eniripsa, overcome with emotion. "This is incredible…"

As she approached the church door, she tried to get the creatures' attention by smiling at them. Their lack of reaction didn't bother Libet, who interpreted it as a sign of modesty or even shyness. She had just stepped over the threshold when…

SLAM!

The door swung violently shut behind her. After that, it all went very quickly. Libet felt little hands scrabbling at her face to blindfold her. Others hoisted her in the air and carried her along. She struggled to free herself, but something was slowing her movements.

A cool, damp breeze seemed to be paralyzing her. Or was it her own fear? Finally, Libet was shoved down a long set of stairs, tumbling violently the whole way down until she landed head first against a wet, moss-covered stone.

She gagged at the sudden smell of mildew, mixed with the acrid scent of ash. From where she lay, she could hear the muffled singing of the little procession that had brought her here.

"Lalalaaa laaa – lilili- skritch skritch skritch! Lalalaaa laaa – lilili - - skritch skritch pweek!"

Libet felt a wave of terror run through her. A knot formed at the back of her throat as a dreary ceremonial chant filled the room.

Laaa-laaa-laaa... Liii-liii-liii... Skritch. Skritch.

PWEEK!

Stakes of the Sacrificed

Suddenly, someone removed her blindfold and freed her hands. A familiar shape stood there before her. The same one she had almost crushed when she was getting ready to leave the Evil Forest… The same one that her friend Mattew had shown her when he'd warned her about the various creatures that live within the Evil Forest. And then it all came back to her. She pulled out her glasses with trembling hands, scratching her fingers on the broken lenses as she balanced them as best she could on the tip of her nose.

"Malterbarbs… These… These aren't malteregos… They're… MALTERBARBS!"

Libet had been tripped up by her own pride. Her rush to follow the creatures, her impatience and her thirst for discovery had led her to a grave and irrevocable error.

"O Mistress, accept this gift as proof of our unconditional love for you."

The young Twelvian's harrowing cry was drowned out by the voices singing outside and the giggling of the army of malterbarbs that now faced her around five crackling pyres with stakes at the center. Suddenly gripped with uncontrollable spasms, she grabbed the sketchbook from the inside pocket of her jacket and started frantically scribbling the outline of a silhouette with both animal and womanly features.

A message for posterity. A warning to any future explorers who, like Libet, might wind up as sacrificial offerings